It’s about memory retention, ratta maar ke. The boy-genius played with astonishing wisdom by Akshath Das is really not a prodigy his father is determined to prove him to be. It’s a lethal mind-game that eventually leads to monstrous tragedy, and only the father and son are supposed to know about it. Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s over-ambitious patriarch act will move, stir and terrify you. In what is arguably his finest performance to date, he is chillingly real in his parental paranoia, killingly clued-in as the Tamilian Dalit Ayyan Mani, a lowly assistant at a science institute researching on alien microbes which don’t exist. Never did. Just like his young son Adi’s prodigious mind.
An invention of the modern age wherein a non-existence idea acquires authenticity by sheer repetition. So, repeat after me, director Sudhir Mishra is cinema’s equivalent to the space scientist who doesn’t believe alien microbes exist. But no way will that stop him from looking. The way Ayyan de-intellectualizes the pursuit of intellectual release, both at his workplace with his boss (Nasser, as usual brilliant) and at home with his 10-year old son is somehow paralleled in Mani’s devious mind.
In order to get anywhere in life, one needs to climb out of that cubbyhole karma has created for each one of us. Right from the beginning of this scathing take on the cost that the caste factors extract from those who try to fight it (we needn’t go too far off to find out, just try Hathras), Nawazuddin’s Ayyan is a Dalit man who won’t take the exploitation and the humiliation lying down. In an early sequence when Ayyan tries to argue his way into a school admission for his son, he plays with the ‘backward’ card with a forwardness that confuses his adversaries.
Nawaz throws his lines on where to draw the line between using and misusing the caste card, like a seasoned fisherman who throws his net into the water unsure of his catch but sure that of finding something to keep the home fire burning. Manu Joseph’s novel is not an easy work to adapt to screen. There is so much to be read between the lines. Sudhir Mishra’s admirable screen adaptation gives voice to unspoken rebukes and taunts of the underprivileged community whose dreams are crushed under the wheel of the Great Indian Arrogance.
As an over-reacher, Nawazuddin is in top form, filled with an implosive rage that builds up to a devastating climax. In a sequence like the one where he threatens his son’s best friend into silence, shot on a roof terrace with pigeons and angst for company, Nawaz is a bundle of nerves ready to explode.
Where the film errs is in not giving a more definitive shape to the incidental characters such as the wheeler-dealer politician’s daughter Anuja (Shweta Basu Prasad) who walks around in her high heels with a limp gifted to her by her husband. Like her limp, she doesn’t really fit in.
This is a father-son conundrum that Nawaz and his little co-star own like their home. Even Indira Tiwari as Nawaz’s film is peripheral to the plot. But she makes up for it with a bludgeoning outburst at the end that leaves Nawaz as crushed as the audience. Serious Men will leave you seriously wounded for a while at last as you think about how parents thrust their dreams on their children with devastating consequences. This is Mishra’s best work in years.